Critics claim that the spread of Sharia law is creating a parallel legal system that opposes equal rights. We get a rare glimpse of an Islamic court at work.
After being beaten repeatedly by her husband – who had also threatened to kill her – Jameela turned to her local Sharia council in a desperate bid for a way out of her marriage. Today she discovers the verdict. Playing nervously with her hands, the young mother-of-three listens as the panel of judges discuss whether they should grant her a divorce.
The council meets once a month at the Birmingham Central Mosque. Many of the cases relate to divorce and involve the husbands and wives entering the room separately to make their appeals.
In an airless room in the bowels of the mosque, Jameela is asked to explain why she wants a divorce. She replies that her husband spends most of his time with his second wife – Islamic law allows men to have up to four wives – but complains he is abusive whenever he returns to her home.
Across the desk, Dr Mohammed Naseem, chair of the mosque’s Sharia council, sits alongside Talha Bokhari, a white-robed imam, and Amra Bone, the only woman sitting on an Islamic court in this country.
While a husband is not required to go through official channels to gain a divorce – being able to achieve this merely by uttering the word “talaq” – Islamic law requires that the wife must persuade the judges to grant her a dissolution.
Although the judges appear sympathetic, they are concerned about the rights of the father, as Islamic law says he is still responsible for his children’s education. “For the sake of the children, you must keep up the façade of cordial relations,” says Dr Naseem. “The worst thing that can happen to a child is to see the father and mother quarrelling.”
Jameela is one of hundreds of Muslims applying to Islamic courts every week for a ruling on family and financial issues. While these courts may be the cornerstone of many of Britain’s Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, there are growing concerns that they are creating a parallel legal system – and one that is developing completely unchecked.
Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester who was born in Pakistan, was accused of scaremongering after he said, in this newspaper three years ago, that parts of the country were being turned into “no-go” areas for non-Muslims. “To understand the impact of Sharia law you have to look at other countries,” he says. “At its heart it has basic inequalities between Muslims and non-Muslims, and between men and women.”
Last month, Islamic extremists put up posters in the London boroughs of Waltham Forest, Tower Hamlets and Newham, warning residents that they were entering a “Sharia-controlled zone” where Islamic rules were enforced and gambling, alcohol and music was banned. The posters were later removed by police.
Alan Craig, a former Newham councillor who has lived in the area for 30 years, says: “I can no longer walk to my local shops and find anywhere to buy conventional, non-halal meat. Posters at bus stops of swimwear models are spray-painted over with a burka. The pavements are crowded with women wearing not just the face-veil, but black gloves to hide their hands.”
He recalls that last September, staff at a local primary school assured Muslim parents that they would ensure their children observed Ramadan by refusing them food and drink, even though Britain was in the middle of a heatwave. “I was stunned. This is where we’ve got ourselves to. Secular authorities policing Ramadan for Muslim parents.”
It is only a few minutes’ walk from Newham to Leyton, home to the headquarters of the Islamic Sharia Council, a body set up in 1982 that oversees about a dozen Sharia courts across the country. It is estmated that there are as many as 85 Sharia courts in Britain. One of the judges who sits on the Leyton council, Dr Suhaib Hasan, wants Britain to introduce the penal law where women are stoned for committing adultery, and robbers have their hands amputated.
The contrast between this and the council at Birmingham Central Mosque reflects how the interpretation of Sharia – which unlike Western law has never been codified – can differ markedly between communities.
Based on the Koran and the Sunnah, the two main Islamic texts that deal with how Muslims should lead their lives, Sharia covers everything from diet and hygiene to bigger issues such as crime and relationships.
In an attempt to counter the proliferation of these courts, a Bill has been tabled in the House of Lords by Baroness Cox calling for Sharia courts to be outlawed where they conflict with the British legal system.
Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Lord Phillips, the former Lord Chief Justice, argued in 2008 that Sharia courts should be used to resolve disputes among Muslims. But since then, according to Baroness Cox, the problem has become more entrenched.
“My Bill seeks to stop parallel legal, or quasi-legal, systems taking root in our nation,” she says. “There is widespread concern that some tribunals applying Sharia are going well beyond their legal remit, and some rulings are being misrepresented as having the force of UK law. Cases of criminal law and family law are matters reserved for the English courts alone.
“I hope the Bill gets through, as I believe it is vital for securing the rights of women in this country.”
Family disputes – like Jameela’s – are common. After listening to Jameela’s husband, who agrees to the divorce, the judges grant her wish – but advise Jameela that if she remarries she should have the union officially registered.
Indeed, like many Muslim women in Britain today, Jameela had an Islamic marriage – or nikah – in a mosque, yet has not had it recognised in British law, leaving her in a much weaker legal position with regards to property and the custody of her children. This lack of regulation is one of the many areas that concern campaigners.
“Muslim women who have a poor grasp of English or are unaware of their legal rights are likely to believe whatever their Sharia court tells them,” says Baroness Cox.
Though the Sharia council in Birmingham is relatively liberal in its interpretation of the Koran, others are more fundamental in applying Islamic law, which gives the testimony of a woman only half the weight of that of a man.
“Sharia courts are utterly opposed to equal rights and they discriminate against women,” says Jim Fitzpatrick, the Labour MP for Poplar and Canning Town, an area with a population now dominated by Bangladeshi Muslims.
Fitzpatrick recently chaired a debate in the House of Commons on Sharia. “I’m concerned that they are creating a cultural stranglehold over their communities and leading to the Islamification of our society,” he says.
Amra Bone, the first woman in Britain to serve at a Sharia court, is playing a small role in attempting to counteract that image. Quietly spoken and dressed in a grey jacket with her head covered in a hijab, she hopes to change the face of Islam in this country, challenging the traditional roles expected of women.
Yet many Muslims would find her presence on the council of Birmingham’s central mosque unacceptable. In the vast majority of mosques in Britain, women are not allowed to step foot within their walls, let alone make rulings based on Islamic law.
“Most mosques would not allow a woman to be on its Sharia council,” she says. “But it’s a liberating experience to be involved in breaking the shackles of tradition and the slavery of men.”
The married mother-of-four believes her appointment represents a significant step in giving Muslim women a voice. “Sharia law can be discriminatory towards women, but they seem reassured when they see me sitting behind the desk.”
In most schools of Islamic teaching, women would not be allowed such a position of authority, but Amra was asked to become a member of the council after she impressed Dr Naseem with her knowledge of Sharia law.
Although there are no specific qualifications required to be appointed to a council, Amra has a masters degree in Islamic studies from Birmingham University, and is now a part-time lecturer at Warwick University.
Sharia courts have been accused of exploiting women by favouring men in their decisions, potentially leaving wives trapped in abusive marriages. Opponents also point to a ruling in an inheritance dispute that saw each of the brothers given twice the amount received by the sisters, in line with Islamic inheritance law.
These are issues Amra is keen to address. “Sharia courts in Britain were initially set up to help women because they wouldn’t – or couldn’t – go to the civil courts. Sharia courts therefore offered the only way for them to get on with their lives. The Koran gives you principles, but you don’t have to take everything literally. You have to interpret it and apply it to the community you live in, and for us, that means treating men and women equally.”
Given that Islamic men from a fundamentalist background, particularly from Saudi Arabia, will not allow their wives to leave their homes without their permission, she is aware that her championing of greater equality will alarm the custodians of Islam’s patriarchal system.
“I hope that I’m helping to break the long-held view that women aren’t capable of leadership roles. Muslim women have been restricted in what they can and can’t do. I hope that my presence on the council gives them hope that they can live a fulfilled life.”
Yet campaigners hope to see all Sharia courts outlawed from this country. Although the courts currently have no jurisdiction in Britain, the Islamic Sharia Council makes clear that its ultimate goal is to have their laws recognised.
It says on its website: “Though the Council is not yet legally recognised by the authorities in the UK, the fact that it is already established, and is gradually gaining ground among the Muslim community… are all preparatory steps towards the final goal of gaining the confidence of the host community in the soundness of the Islamic legal system.”
Certain decisions made under Sharia are already enforceable in British courts through the 1996 Arbitration Act, which allows any form of agreement as long as both parties concur on the terms at the outset. This legal standing does not apply to the informal Sharia councils – but does apply to the Muslim arbitration tribunals that rule on commercial and civil disputes, a fact that is raising fears that they could begin to supplant the British court system.
Set up in 2007 by Sheikh Faiz Siddiqi, a qualified commercial barrister, there are now seven Muslim arbitration tribunals across the country.
They are becoming popular with non-Muslims, too – who, Siddiqi claims, have made up around 15 per cent of their cases so far this year, compared to five per cent in 2009. “People see that they’re efficient, cheap and informal and we get to a decision in a much more stress-free manner.”
In 2009, a non-Muslim took his Muslim business partner to a tribunal, arguing that they had an oral agreement over the profits
in their car company. He was awarded £48,000 after the tribunal ruled that the Muslim partner had acted in a way that suggested a deal had been struck.
Earlier this year, another non-Muslim also found success by taking a dispute to the tribunal. He had been thrown out of his flat by his Muslim landlord after being accused of breaching the terms of his lease. The tribunal ruled that he had been treated unfairly and should be allowed to return to his property.
Sheikh Siddiqi says non-Muslims are using the tribunal system because they appreciate the weight that rulings under Sharia law carry in the Islamic world.
“People are finding that the negative images evoked in the past about Sharia law being draconian are not accurate,” he says. “Instead they’re seeing that our tribunals are a cheaper and quicker method of resolving disagreement, and they’re coming away with rulings that are fair.”
Indeed, Siddiqi even claims that much of English contract law has been inspired by Islamic contract law. “There are strong similarities between the two. Those who say that Sharia law conflicts with English law don’t know what they’re talking about. In England, criminal law is going towards Islamic law in terms of restorative justice, looking to have the victim compensated by the perpetrator. That’s exactly what we’ve been doing for 1,400 years.”
But Bishop Nazir-Ali says the argument that there is common ground and compatibility between Sharia and English law gives a misleading impression.
“The problem with Sharia law being used in tribunals is that it compromises the tradition of equality for all under the law,” he says. “It threatens the fundamental values that underpin our society.”